Reconsidering Jewish sororities must involve a systematic reconsideration of Greek life
They seemed like they were everywhere, since where my friends and I lived on campus was known for its Greek population. These girls, with their slim black pants or sweats with the name of their sorority across the ass, moving in sweet smelling, laughing clusters. We, the un-sororitied, deemed them dumb, slutty and rich. We equated them with the fraternity boys we regular passed on Frat Row, who hollered at us and held up cards with numbers on them to indicate our attractiveness. I associated them with the girls who were cruel to me in middle school. We were all positive that they were laughing at us, yet, for all our catiness, my friends and I were actually in awe of the weird power we thought they held. So we were just a bunch of arrogant, insecure jerks. It took me a long time (and some sturdy women's studies seminars) to understand that in spite of the fact that I called myself a feminist, publically and unapologetically, I was not free from the trap of internalized sexism, I was just as able to perpetuate it against women as men were.
Shira Kohn's essay, "A (Re)Consideration of Jewish Sororities" in Lilith's fall 2011 issue, calls attention to the possibility that Jewish sororities can be a source of Jewish feminist identity and might also be a good alternative space for Jewish community on campus. According to Sigma Delta Tau's Executive Director Ann Braly, "The old sorority stereotypes are ancient history.”
To claim that the stereotypes of yore are a thing of the past is simply naive. The term JAP, in all its antisemitic, misogynist glory, lives on in campus vernacular, and it is certainly directed at the sorority population, or at least it was when I was working on campuses in the Midwest and the East coast from 2002-2010. It's said often without really considering its context, as a weapon, and as a means of distancing oneself from a community they wish to not be a part of.
I don't doubt that there are important leadership opportunities for Jewish women within the Greek community, that sorority women aren't doing great work elsewhere on their campuses, or that it's not valuable to build Jewish community with other women. But I question how much feminist identity can be constructed and strengthened within a context like the Greek system, which is historically deeply classist, racist, sexist and homophobic. Why must Jewish sororities be part of the larger Greek system? Why must one pay dues in order to belong to a group that does community service? (Are there scholarships available to folks challenged by the price of clothing for rush activities, dues, etc?) Why the constant emphasis on competition for men and on uniformity?
It might seem weird that as a feminist, I'm being so hard on a woman's organization. The fact that Jewish sororities are part of the patriarchy that is the Greek system makes it a complicated issue. Sororities are undoubtedly an untapped resource for Jewish women's energy and leadership, but they exist within an organization generally unquestioning of the centrality and glorification of male power.
If Jewish sororities are actively committed to their roots as "a group that was not biased by prejudices of religion or any racial discrimination,” (a founder of Alpha Epsilon Phi), “a place void of pettiness where our ideals as young women could be fostered and nourished," and a force that challenges a patriarchal system in both words and actions, then the terrain can indeed look very different.